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Jewish World Review July 16, 2001 / 25 Tamuz 5761

Bill Schneider

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Empowered moderate Republicans -- SOME people wondered how much difference it would make for Democrats to claim the Senate majority. It's still the same Senate. Not a single vote has changed.

Now we know.

The Patients' Bill of Rights had been languishing in Congress for years. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) noted during the Senate debate, ``We have been debating this for ten years in some form, five years intensely, and the time has long since passed to do it.'' No sooner did the Democrats take over the Senate than they made patients' rights the top item on their agenda.

Senate Democrats passed the bill in a way that puts President Bush on the defensive. They compromised on every issue where the bill might have been vulnerable. They stood their ground where it was politically safe. Nine Senate Republicans ended up voting for it.

The Democrats reached for the center at the same time President Bush has been losing the center. Take the much-commented-upon drop in the President's job rating. The news that President Bush's job approval is hovering around 50 percent in the polls does not signify a sudden crisis. The President's ratings have been eroding gradually since March, when he was at 63 percent approval in the Gallup Poll. Bush won the election with just under 50 percent of the vote. His support has slowly been returning to its base level. That is not good news for the White House, of course. The President needs to build on his base, not return to it.

The biggest problem for the White House is that Bush has become an intensely partisan President. More like Bill Clinton than Ronald Reagan. Republicans and conservatives are solidly behind President Bush. Democrats and liberals are solidly against him. Bush has been losing support in the non-partisan sector, among Independents and moderates. What Bush desperately needs is a unity initiative -- like, say, the Patients' Bill of Rights.

In late May, when Sen. Tom Daschle found out he would become the new Senate majority leader, he promised a spirit of bipartisanship. ``We can't dictate to them, nor can they dictate to us,'' Daschle said. Republicans wondered what happened to that spirit during the debate over the Patients' Bill of Rights, as Daschle threatened to cancel the Senate's Fourth of July vacation unless the issue were brought to a vote.

In the end, Senate Republicans couldn't stop the measure. They didn't have the votes. Why not, if the Senate is so closely divided? For one thing, Democrats have public pressure on their side. As more and more Americans have been forced into managed care, they want more leverage against insurance companies. It's not like the health care debate of 1993-94. That was about giving new rights to the ®MDRV¯un®MDNM¯insured. This is about new rights for the insured -- a larger and more powerful constituency.

So Democrats ended up pushing a bill through the Senate that President Bush is threatening to veto. What's the point of that?

The point is that the bill the Democrats put together is one the President will find very difficult to veto. Bush did have legitimate complaints about the Democrats' bill. He protested that it would ``run up the cost of health insurance for American workers'' and ``could conceivably cost millions of people their health insurance.''

So Senate Democrats accepted many compromises, brokered by moderate Republicans, on issues where the bill might be politically vulnerable. Like protecting small business. And deferring to states' rights. And limiting frivolous lawsuits. ``We have shared the language with both sides in this debate,'' Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), one of the brokers, noted. ``We have taken their comments into consideration. We literally have built on both bills to come up with this compromise.''

The key broker, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), warned, ``It would be politically perilous for us to be sending a bill to the President that he has to veto.''

On big issues, however, like giving patients the right to sue their insurance companies, Democrats stood their ground. ``The President's going to have to make a decision about this issue,'' Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) said, ``whether he wants to stand with the big HMO's or with patients and doctors.''

The Patients' Bill of Rights is not a partisan issue. Nearly 60 percent of Americans want Congress to pass it, according to Gallup. Only 11 percent are opposed. President Bush insists he, too, favors a Patients' Bill of Rights -- but a different version than the one that passed the Senate. When Americans were asked whether they trusted the Democrats or the Republicans more on the issue, the Democrats had a slight edge, 44 to 34 percent.

If Congress ends up passing something close to the Senate bill, President Bush will be under strong pressure to sign it. A veto would be seen as highly partisan -- and politically damaging. That's why the President must now rely on the House of Representatives to pass something more to his liking. In the House, as in the Senate, the key brokers will be moderate Republicans. The difference is that they will be making deals with the leadership of their own party.

Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection had an unanticipated effect. It empowered moderate Republicans, particularly those from northeastern states who, like Jeffords, can probably survive outside the GOP. The Republican Party needs them much more than they need the Republican Party.

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© 2001, William Schneider